How to Get Rid of Weeds: Tips for Fighting the Good Fight and Coming Out Ahead!

July 4, 2013

The recent rise in temperatures and occasional summer rain has been great for our gardens – we can almost hear the plants let out a collective and contented, ‘ahhhh’, as the drops fall.  However, it’s also great for the weeds – Boo.  I don’t know about you, but I can overlook a few little weeds here and there – I think it’s necessary to maintaining our sanity and unfortunately, is part and parcel with having a garden.  That being said, if there are weeds popping up throughout, I don’t care how good the rest of my garden looks… all I see are those pesky weeds.   No, it’s not glamorous, but weed control is essential for maintaining a healthy and beautiful garden.  Not only are weeds unsightly, but they rob available moisture, nutrients, sunlight and growing space from our desired plants.  Weed control is serious business, but it doesn’t have to be pure drudgery!  We have some easy tips to help you come out ahead in the battle against weeds.

Dandelion

Dandelion

 There are four ways to get rid of weeds; Cultural, Mechanical, Biological and Chemical.  And yes, it may be necessary to use a four-pronged attack.

 Cultural Control of Weeds:

What the heck is “cultural control”? Cultural control is the establishment of competitive and desired vegetation to prevent or slow the spread of weeds – otherwise read as, an Excuse To Buy More Plants!  It’s simple, by covering the ground with plants you actually want, you limit the space for weeds to grow – genius!

Another form of cultural weed management is the use of mulch.  Mulches work by covering the soil and preventing sun from reaching, and ultimately germinating, weed seeds.  Organic mulch is derived from plant material and decomposes naturally in the soil, adding nutrients as it does so.  Mulches serve triple-duty by helping to increase soil moisture retention, enhance soil warming and reduce weeds.  And trust us when we tell you, those few weeds that do occasionally pop up through mulch, are SO much easier to pull than weeds growing in bare, compacted soil.   An added bonus, to all the practical aspects of mulching, is that a freshly mulched garden looks tidy and “polished”.  The best time to use organic mulch is sometime in late winter – February is ideal.

Sublime Garden Design

Sublime Garden Design

Biological Control of Weeds:        

Biological control of weeds is the “use of living agents to suppress the vigor and spread of weeds. Such agents can be insects, bacteria, fungi, or grazing animals such as sheep, goats, cattle or horses.” (WA Dept of Agriculture).  Most of this doesn’t apply to us as average home-owners.  However, if you have an area of your yard, where a serious noxious weed such as Himalayan blackberry or Scotch broom has taken over, that you’d like to restore or renovate into a useable outdoor space, goats, may be your answer.  For large jobs consider Rent-A-Ruminant LLC, or for smaller jobs Amazing Grazers LLC.  Both are eco-friendly and practice excellent animal husbandry.

copyright - Hawley

copyright – Hawley

Mechanical Control of Weeds:

pulling-weeds

 Mechanical control consists of methods that kill or suppress weeds through physical disruption. Yep, this is where we get down and dirty and pull, dig or burn.  Yes, you read that correctly ‘burn’.  Another option is the use of a flame torch.  A flame torch is a long metal torch at the end of a hand-held propane gas tank that’s used to burn weeds on contact.  It’s especially useful in areas where there’s no threat of catching desirable plants on fire such as, a gravel driveway, in the cracks of a sidewalk or between the stones on a flagstone patio.

copyright - Improvements

copyright – Improvements

Through our collective decades of fighting weeds, we’ve come across some tools we can swear by.  One such tool is the hori hori, or Japanese garden knife.  It looks just like a knife with a serrated edge on one side.  Not only is it good for digging out weeds with a long tap root, but it’s perfect for small planting jobs – easily my favorite and most used tool.   You can find a hori hori at almost any independent nursery or garden store.

Hori hori - Annie's Annuals

Hori hori – Annie’s Annuals

Another useful tool is the stirrup or hula hoe.  The hula hoe has a “D” shaped blade at the end of a long handle.  It works by slicing through weed roots, just below the soil surface.  The hula hoe is also useful for pushing young annual weeds back into the soil where they can decompose rather than pulling them up.  While the hula hoe is great for weeding large areas quickly, we also caution again disturbing the soil continually.  Turning the soil over too much can not only expose more weed seeds to the sun for possible germination, but also breaks down soil structure (a topic for another time!).

Hula hoe -gardeners.com

Hula hoe – gardeners.com

And another all-time favorite – Green Jeans!  Green Jeans are gardening chaps made out of “back pack tough 1000 denier textured nylon fabric”, that fit right over your pants and have built in knee pads.  Forget shuffling around a little foam kneeler and try these, they’ll save your knees and your back.

I can’t think of a garden where I haven’t had to use mechanical methods, aka, good old-fashioned elbow grease, but these tools should help make the job much easier.

Chemical Control of Weeds:

Chemical control is the application of an herbicide to manage weeds.  From dandelions to blackberry, we’ve battled it all and think there’s a better, more environmentally friendly, option than applying toxic chemicals to kill weeds.

For an organic alternative to harsh chemicals, try vinegar.  Vinegar works by burning the foliage until only shriveled leaves remain.  Use it on a hot sunny day, with no sight of rain in the near forecast, for the most effective results.  Vinegar is a non-selective contact killer, so be sure to use it only on undesirable plants – your prized epimedium will shrivel just as fast as that patch of crab grass!  The roots are often not killed entirely, so repeated applications may be necessary.  Go to Costco, and buy the two pack of 1 gallon white vinegar jugs, a tank sprayer from any box store and have at it!  (Guess what my husband got to do this past weekend?)

glass-vinegar-bottle_300

Another non-toxic option is the use of corn gluten meal as a pre-emergent herbicide.  Corn gluten meal works by inhibiting freshly germinated weed roots from expanding, thus quickly killing them due to dehydration.  In order to be effective, the corn meal must be applied in early spring, right before weeds germinate.  You may not see instant results, but every consecutive year you apply it should give you better results than the year before.

Weed control is a constant battle, but by being proactive and using some of the tips and tools listed above, you can greatly reduce the amount of time spent weeding and increase your time enjoying your beautiful and healthy garden!

For more information, a fantastic resource is the King County Noxious Weed website.

5 comments... (add a comment)

  1. Pingback: How to Get Rid of Weeds And Win! - Plant Care Today

  2. Carrol Pace

    Great article

  3. I never considered using vinegar as an organic way of killing plans. I imagine that this would also be a lot cheaper than the chemical alternative since you can find vinegar at just about any grocery store. I’ll have to consider hiring a pest control company that works with vinegar so that all the weeds in my lawn go away.

    • Hi Sam,
      Vinegar is a great option for getting rid of weeds but it does work best in full sun so this time of year (at least in the Pacific Northwest) would not be ideal for using vinegar. Hand pulling weeds is the best option for this time of year as the ground is wet. Also, vinegar does not discriminate so if you are trying to kill weeds in your lawn, you’ll want to be careful as it can kill grass and other plants.

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